Thousands stranded as Eurostar service is suspended

Service halted after trains broke down and trapped passengers in tunnel

Thousands of would-be travellers remained stranded last night as Eurostar services from London to Paris were suspended indefinitely after six trains broke down in the Channel Tunnel.

More than 2,000 passengers were trapped in the broken-down trains for hours over the weekend. Many had to endure a gruelling wait without food or drink as they waited for rescuers to reach and evacuate them safely.

Freezing weather in northern France, and warm and humid conditions inside the tunnel, caused water to get into the trains' electrical systems, either through condensation or melting ice, Eurostar said. No services will run today as further tests take place.

Pascal Sainson, director of operations for Eurotunnel, said: "The snow entered the locomotives' ventilation system... When the trains entered the great warmth of the tunnel, the electrical system short-circuited and the traction motors of the Eurostars cut out and would not start again."

The problem, said industry sources, has been known about for at least two years and has caused trains to break down in the past – most recently last February, amid similar winter weather with snow and ice.

One source told The Independent: "It's not unprecedented that this kind of issue has occurred where trains have stopped in the tunnel because of the snowy conditions. It happened in February and I've been aware of it for several years."

Another said: "The fault they've had is one they've had before, although not on quite the same scale."

Eurostar admitted yesterday it had been aware of the issue for a while, but maintained that whereas in the past it had affected one train at a time, last weekend was unprecedented in having so many trains break down. Lesley Retallack, a Eurostar spokesman, said there had been similar incidents "on one or two occasions" but that this time it had occurred on an unprecedented scale and at one of the busiest times of year for the company.

Richard Brown, the rail company's chief executive, offered an "abject" apology to passengers who had been trapped underground, and accepted that while the rescue had been a complicated operation, Eurostar's performance had not been as good as he would have hoped.

Last night, a Eurostar spokesman said screens and shields fitted to the trains to stop snow getting into the electrics had failed, and that enginners were working on modifications and would be conducting further tests today.

In France, a senior politician demanded an EU investigation into the "scandalously slow" response to the rescue of passengers. French Euro MP, Dominique Baudis, along with his wife and their son, had been among the passengers who found themselves trapped in the tunnel on Friday night. He said yesterday that the "total inertia" of Eurostar and Eurotunnel in responding to the emergency was a "scandal".

He said: "What I saw amounted to non-assistance to people in danger," – which under French law constitutes a criminal offence punishable by large fines or prison sentences.

Severe weather conditions continued in much of Britain yesterday, with more than 20cm of snow falling across areas of western Scotland, north-west England and the Pennines. Further heavy snowfalls were experienced in the Midlands and the North-east.

Driving conditions were treacherous and many roads had to be closed temporarily as vehicles became stuck in the ice and snow. The AA reported its busiest weekend of the year, with 20,000 calls for assistance on Saturday and a further 7,000 by Sunday lunchtime.

Gavin Hill-Smith, of the AA, said some of the calls were from people who simply needed help getting their cars off driveways and onto the roads.

"Many roads have been treacherous if not unpassable," he said. "There have been a lot of low-speed accidents.

It's not so much the snow, it's the ice that causes the problems. People underestimate the braking distance they need – it can be tenfold on their normal braking distance."

Angela Comb, of Traffic Master, which monitors traffic flows nationwide, said roads in Manchester and Derbyshire were the worst-hit by snow yesterday. Among the closures caused by snow was the M60 from junction 10 to 11. She added: "There have been icy conditions across the whole country."

At Manchester Airport there were delays to flights because staff had repeatedly to sweep the runway clear of snow. At Heathrow there were more than 30 cancelled flights, but most were a result of difficult weather conditions at destinations in Europe.

Er, anyone for the Arctic express?

*On reflection, it may not have been the best time to make the announcement, Richard Garner writes.

While thousands of passengers were stranded as Eurostar ground to a halt, Vladimir Yakunin, president of Russia's state-run railway service, revealed ambitious plans to connect his country to North America via a railway tunnel.

He told the Sunday Express his engineers had been studying the Channel tunnel as a model for a new 64-mile tunnel under the Bering Sea.

The £40bn plan would mean boring through two islands in the straits and constructing more than 3,000 miles of new track through Eastern Russia. Lines would also have to be built through Arctic terrain in Alaska. The project was first dreamt up by Tsar Nicholas II a century ago but has been in cold storage since then.

Mr Yakunin said: "Already some representatives from some funds in the US have come to me about my ambition to run trains from Russia to the US. We could link up half the world. Why not? It's possible and it may be feasible within 10 years."

Doubts were cast on the viability of the project, though, with rail experts querying whether there would be enough demand from potential travellers. After so many passengers were stranded on Eurostar this weekend in somewhat milder weather conditions than one could expect in an Arctic winter, it may be there are a number of people who would share that concern.

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